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From the Dylan Thomas Prize Shortlist: Seven Steeples & I’m a Fan
The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize recognizes the best published work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under. All literary genres are eligible, so the shortlist contains a poetry collection as well as novels and short stories.
I’ve read half of the shortlist (also including Warsan Shire’s poems) and would be interested in trying the rest if I can source the two short story collections; Limberlost is at my library. The winner will be announced at 8 p.m. BST on Thursday 11 May.
Seven Steeples by Sara Baume
Isabel and Simon arrive one January at a shabby rental house in coastal Ireland overlooked by a mountain, in the middle of nowhere. They’d been menial workers in Dublin and met climbing a mountain, but somehow never seem to get around to climbing their new local peak. In moving here, these “two solitary misanthropes” are essentially rejecting society and kin; Baume describes them as “post-family.” It appears that they’re post-employment as well – there is never a single reference to how they pay the rent and buy the hipster foods they favour. Could young people’s savings really fund eight years’ rural living?
It’s an appealingly anti-consumerist vision, anyway: They arrive with one van-load of stuff and their adopted dogs, Pip and Voss, and otherwise make do with a haphazard collection of secondhand belongings left by previous tenants or donated by their estranged families. The house starts to fall apart around them, but for the most part they adjust to the decay rather than do anything to reverse it. “They had become poor and shabby without noticing … accustomed to disrepair”; theirs is a “personalized squalor.”
Bell and Sigh become increasingly hermit-like, with entrenched ways of doing things. Baume several times describes their compost bin, which struck me as a perfect image for how the stuff of daily life builds up and beds down into the foundation of personalities and a relationship. The fact that they only have each other (and the dogs) for company explains how they adopt each other’s mannerisms, develop a private language, and even conflate their separate memories. The starkest symbol of their refusal of societal norms comes when they miss a clock change and effectively live in their own time zone.
I recognized from Spill Simmer Falter Wither and handiwork several elements that reflect Baume’s interests: nature imagery, dogs, and daily routines. She gives a clear sense of time’s passage and the seasons’ turning, of repetition and attrition and ageing. I wearied of the descriptive passages and hoped that at some point there would be some action and dialogue to counterbalance them, but that is not what this novel is about. Occasional flashes from the point-of-view of a mouse in the house, or a spider in the van, tell you that Baume’s scope is wider. This is in fact an allegory about impermanence, from a mountain’s-eye view.
Although I was frustrated with the central characters’ jolly incompetence (“Just buy leashes and a tick twister, you idiots!” I felt like shouting at them after yet another mention of the dogs killing cats and rabbits; and of the difficulty of removing ticks from their coats), I recognized how easy it is to get stuck in lazy habits; how easy it is to live provisionally, as if all is temporary and not your real existence.
Baume spaces lines and paragraphs almost like hybrid poetry and indulges in overwriting in places. Because of the dearth of action, this was a slog of a months-long read for me, but I admired it in the end and enjoyed it more than the other two books of hers that I’ve read.
If you admire lyrical prose and are okay with little to no plot in a novel, you should get on fine with this one. Or it might be that it requires the right time or reading mood, when you’re after something quiet.
Having read more by Dylan Thomas now, I think this is exactly the sort of place-specific and playful, stylized prose that the prize named after him is looking for. So, I’ll predict Baume as the winner.
With thanks to Tramp Press for the free e-copy for review.
I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel
This was one of my correct predictions for the Women’s Prize longlist; I’d heard a lot about it from Best of 2022 roundups and it seemed like the kind of edgy title they might recognise. It’s also perfect for the Dylan Thomas Prize list because of how voice-driven it is. The unnamed narrator, a woman of colour in her early thirties, muses on art, entitlement, obsession, social media and sex in short titled sections ranging from one paragraph to a few pages long. The twin objects of her fanaticism are “the man I want to be with,” who is married and generally keeps her at arm’s length, and “the woman I am obsessed with,” a lifestyle influencer who, like herself, is one of this man’s girlfriends on the side. She stalks the woman via her impeccably curated Instagram images.
The narrator has a boyfriend, in fact, a peculiarly perfect-sounding one even, but takes him for granted in her compulsive search for indiscriminate sexual experience (also including a female co-worker she calls “the Peach”). They end up parting ways and she moves back in with her parents, an ignominious retreat from attempted adulting.
She reminded me a bit of Bell and Sigh for her haplessness, but whereas the matter of having children literally never arises for them, the question of motherhood is a background niggle for her (“I thought I had the rest of my life to make this decision but I realise I am on a clock and it runs differently for me. I am female. There was never much time and I’ve wasted so much already”; “I want to gain immortality because of my brain and not because of the potential of my womb”). As the novella goes on, she even considers weaponising her fertility as a way of entrapping her crush.
I was reasonably engaged with the narrator’s deliberations about taste and autobiographical influences, but overall found this rather indulgent, slight and repetitive. Books about social media – this reminded me most of Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth – are in danger of becoming irrelevant all too quickly. The sexual frankness fell on the wrong side of unpleasant for me, and the format for referring to other characters leads to inelegant phrasing like “The man I want to be with’s work centres around conflict”. Something like Luster has that little bit more individuality and energy. (Secondhand – charity shop purchase)
Poetry Review Catch-up: Burch, Carrick-Varty, Davidson, Marya, Parsons (#ReadIndies)
As Read Indies month continues, I’m catching up on poetry collections I’ve been sent by three independent publishers: the UK’s Carcanet Press, and Alice James Books and Terrapin Press, both based in the USA. Various as these five are in style and technique, nature and family ties are linking themes. From each I’ve chosen one short poem as a representative.
Leave Me a Little Want by Beverly Burch (2022)
Burch’s fourth collection juxtaposes the cosmic and the mundane, marvelling at the behind-the-scenes magic that goes into one human being born but also making poetry of an impatient wait in a long post office queue. We find weather and travel; smell as well as sight and sound; alliteration and internal rhyme. Beset by environmental anxiety and the scale of bad news during the pandemic, she pauses in appreciation of the small and gradual. Often nature teaches these lessons. “Practice slow. Days for a seed to unfurl a shoot, / yawn out true leaves. Stems creep upward like prayers. / Weeks to make a flower, more to shape fruit.” Burch expresses gratitude for what is and what has been: a man carrying an infant outside her kitchen window gives her a pang for the baby days, but when she puts her hunting cat on house arrest she realizes how glad she is that impulsivity is past: “Intensity. More subtle than passion. / Odd to be grateful so much of my life is over.” Each section contains multiple unrhymed sonnets, as well as an “incantation” and/or an exploration of “Ars Poetica”.
With thanks to Terrapin Books for the free e-copy for review.
More Sky by Joe Carrick-Varty (2023)
In this debut collection by an Eric Gregory Award-winning poet, his father’s suicide is ever-present – and not just in poems like “54 Questions for the Man Who Sold a Shotgun to My Father” but in seemingly unrelated pieces that start off being about something else. Everything comes around to the reality of a neglectful, alcoholic father and the sordid flat he inhabited before his death. Carrick-Varty alternates between an intimate “you” address and third-person scenarios, auditioning coping mechanisms. His frame of reference is wide: football, rappers, Buddhist cosmology. Some poems are printed sideways up the page; there are stanzas, paragraphs and columns. The word “suicide” itself is repeated to the point where it loses meaning, becoming just a sibilant collection of syllables (as in “From the Perspective of Coral,” where “suicide” is substituted for sea creatures, or the long culminating poem, “sky doc,” in which every stanza opens with “Once upon a time when suicide was…”) The tone is often bitter, as is to be expected, but there is joy in the deft use of language.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
Arctic Elegies by Peter Davidson (2022)
Much of the verse in Davidson’s second collection draws on British religious history and liturgy. Some is also in conversation with art, music or other poetry. In all of these cases, I found the Notes at the end of the volume invaluable for understanding the context and inspiration. While most are in stanzas, some employing traditional forms (e.g., “Sonnet for Trinity Sunday”), a few of the poems are in paragraphs and feel more like essays, such as “Secret Theatres of Scotland.” As the title heralds, an elegiac tone runs throughout, with “Arctic Elegy” (taking material from an oratorio he wrote for performance in St Andrew’s Cathedral in 2015) dedicated to the ill-fated Franklin Expedition of 1845–8:
Wonderful is the patience of the snow
And glorious the violence of the cold.
How lovely is the power of the dark pole
To draw the iron and move the compass rose.
As cold as loss as cold as freezing steel
In this same vein, I also appreciated the wry “The Museum of Loss” and the ornate “The Mourning Virtuoso.” There’s a bit of an Auden flavour here, but the niche topics didn’t always hold my attention.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
Sugar Work by Katie Marya (2022)
Marya’s debut collection contains frank autobiographical poems about growing up in Atlanta and Las Vegas with a single mother who was a sex worker and an absentee father. As the pages turn, she gets her first period, loses her virginity, marries and divorces. Her childhood persists in photographs, and the details of places, foods and pop culture form the recognizable texture of American suburbia. Social media haunts or taunts: that photo her addict father posts every year on Facebook of him holding her, aged three, on a beach; the Instagram perfection she wishes she could attain. Marya’s phrasing is carnal, unsentimental and in-your-face (viz. “Valentine’s Day: “Do you think love only exists / because death exists? / I do not want to marry you. // But I do want explosions / of white taffeta and a cake / propped up in my mouth // with your hand for a photo. / Skin is a casing and I hook / mine to yours with a needle.”) There is also a feminist determination to see justice for women who are abused and accused.
With thanks to Alyson Sinclair PR for the free e-copy for review.
The Mayapple Forest by Kim Ports Parsons (2022)
Parts of this alliteration-rich debut collection respond to the pandemic’s gifts of time and attention. Gardening and baking, two of the activities that sustained so many people during lockdowns, appear as acts of faith – planting seeds and waiting to see what becomes of them – and acts of remembrance (in “The Poetry of Pie,” she’s a child making peach pie with her mother). There is a fresh awareness of nature, especially birds: starlings, a bluebird nest, the lovely portrait in “Barn Owl.” From the forest floor to the stars, this world is full of wonders. Human stories thread through, too: dancing to soul music, fixing an elderly woman’s hair, the layers of history uncovered during a renovation of her childhood home. Contrasting with her temporary residence in the Midwest is her nostalgia for Baltimore. Parsons reflects on the sudden loss of her father (“A quick death’s a blessing / for the one who dies”) and the still-tender absence of her mother, the book’s dedicatee.
With thanks to Terrapin Books for the free e-copy for review.
Read any good poetry recently?
Women’s Prize Longlist Reviews (Leilani, Lockwood, and Lyon) & Predictions
Tomorrow, Wednesday the 28th, the Women’s Prize shortlist will be revealed. I have read just over half of the longlist so far and have a few more of the nominees on order from the library – though I may cancel one or two of my holds if they don’t advance to the shortlist. Also, my neighbourhood book club has applied to be one of six reading groups shadowing the shortlist this year via a Reading Agency initiative. If I do say so myself, I think we put in a rather strong application. We’ll hear later this week if we’ve been chosen – fingers crossed!
The three longlisted novels I’ve read most recently were all by L authors:
Luster by Raven Leilani
Edie’s voice is immediately engaging: cutting, funny, pithy. It reminded me of Ava’s in a fellow Women’s Prize nominee, Exciting Times, and both novels even employ a near-identical metaphor: “I wondered if Victoria was a real person or three Mitford sisters in a long coat” (Dolan) versus “all the kids stacked underneath my trench coat rejoice” (Leilani). They are also both concerned with how young women negotiate a confusing romantic landscape and look for meaning beyond a dead-end career. The African-American Edie’s entry-level work for a New York City publisher barely covers her rent at a squalid shared apartment. She’s shagged every male in the office and is now on to one she met online: Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with an open marriage and a Black adopted daughter.
As Edie insinuates herself into Eric’s suburban New Jersey life in peculiar and sometimes unwitting ways, we learn more about her traumatic past: Both of her parents are dead, one by suicide, and she had an abortion at age 16. Along with sex, her main escape is her painting, which is described in tender detail. There are a number of amusing scenes set at off-the-wall locations, like a theme park, a clown school, and Comic Con. Leilani has a knack for capturing an entire realm of experience in just a few pages, as when she satirizes current publishing trends or encapsulates what it’s like to be a bicycle delivery person.
But, as a Goodreads acquaintance put it, all this sharp writing is rather wasted on the plot. I found the direction of the book in its second half utterly unrealistic, and never believed that Edie would have found Eric attractive in any way. (His interest in her is beyond creepy, really.) What I found most intriguing, along with the painting hobby, were Edie’s interactions with other Black characters, such as a publishing company colleague and Eric’s adopted daughter – there’s an uncomfortable sense that they should have a natural camaraderie and/or that Edie should be some kind of role model. I might have liked more of that dynamic, instead of the unbearable awkwardness of temporary instalment in a white neighbourhood. Other readalikes: Queenie, Here Is the Beehive, and On Beauty.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Priestdaddy is one of my absolute favourite books, so Lockwood’s debut novel was one of the 2021 releases I was most looking forward to reading. It took me a while to warm to, but ultimately did not disappoint. It probably helped that I was familiar with the author’s iconoclastic sense of humour. This is a work of third-person autofiction – much more so than I’d realized before I read the Acknowledgments – and to start with it feels like a flippant skewering of modern life, which for some is all about online personality and performance. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.”
Midway through the book, she receives a wake-up call in the form of texts from her mother summoning her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. “It was a marvel how cleanly and completely this lifted her out of the stream of regular life.” Shit just got real, as they say. But “Would it change her?” she asks herself. Apparently, this very thing happened to Lockwood’s own family, which accounts for how heartfelt the second half is – still funny, but with an ache behind it, the same that I sensed and loved in Priestdaddy.
It is the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. As the protagonist tells her students at one point, “Your attention is holy,” and with life so fragile there is no time to waste. What Lockwood is trying to do here is even bigger than that, though, I think. She mocks the whole idea of plot yet takes up the mantle of the “social novel,” as if creating a new format for the Internet-age novel in short, digestible sections. I’m not sure this is as earth-shattering as all that, but it is entertaining and deceptively deep. It also feels like a very current book, playing the role that Weather did in last year’s Women’s Prize race. (See my Goodreads review for more quotes, spoiler-y discussion, and why this book held personal poignancy for me.)
Consent by Annabel Lyon
I’m always drawn to stories of sisters and this was an intriguing one, though the jacket text sets it up to be more of a thriller than it actually is. After their mother’s death, Sara, a medical ethicist, looks after Mattie, her intellectually disabled sister. When Mattie is lured into eloping, Sara’s protective instinct goes into overdrive. Meanwhile, Saskia, a graduate student in French literature, feels obliged to put her twin sister Jenny’s needs first after a car accident leaves Jenny in a coma. There are two decades separating the sets of sisters, but aspects of their experiences reverberate, with fashion, perfume, and alcoholism appearing as connecting elements even before a more concrete link emerges.
For much of the novel, Lyon bounces between the two storylines. I occasionally confused Sara and Saskia, but I think that’s part of the point (why else would an author select two S-a names?) – their stories overlap as they find themselves in the position of making decisions on behalf of an incapacitated sister. The title invites deliberation about how control is parcelled out in these parallel situations, but I’m not sure consent was the right word to encapsulate the whole plot; it seems to give too much importance to some fleeting sexual relationships.
At times I found Lyon’s prose repetitive or detached, but I enjoyed the overall dynamic and the medical threads. There are some stylish lines that land perfectly, like “There she goes … in her lovely coat, that cashmere-and-guilt blend so few can afford. That lovely perfume she trails, lilies and guilt.” The Vancouver setting and French–English bilingualism, not things I often encounter in fiction, were also welcome, and the last few chapters are killer.
The other nominees I’ve read, with ratings and links to reviews, are:
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
The rest of the longlist is:
- Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – I might read this from the library.
- The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig – I’d thought I’d give this one a miss, but I recently found a copy in a Little Free Library. My plan is to read it later in the year as part of a Patricia Highsmith kick, but I’ll move it up the stack if it makes the shortlist.
- Because of You by Dawn French – Not a chance. Right? Please!
- How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones – A DNF; I would only try it again from the library if it was shortlisted.
- Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon – I might read this from the library.
- Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters – I will definitely read this from the library.
- Summer by Ali Smith – I struggle with her work and haven’t enjoyed this series; I would only read this if it was shortlisted and my book club was assigned it!
My ideal shortlist (a wish list based on my reading and what I still want to read):
- The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
- Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
- Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
- Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
- No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
- Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
My predicted shortlist and reasoning:
- The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – A dead cert. I’ve said so since I reviewed it in June 2020.
- Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi – Others don’t seem to fancy Doshi’s chances, and it’s true that she was already shortlisted for the Booker, but I feel like this could be more unifying a choice for the judges than, e.g. Clarke or Lockwood.
- Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi – Another definite.
- Luster by Raven Leilani – Not as strong as the Dolan, in my opinion, but it seems to have a lot of love from these judges (especially Vick Hope, who emphasized how perfectly it captured what it’s like to be young today), and from critics generally.
- Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters – Ordinarily I would have said the Prize is too staid to shortlist a trans author, but after all the online abuse that has been directed at Peters, I think the judges will want to make a stand in support of her legitimacy.
- Summer by Ali Smith – The most establishment author on the list, and not one I generally care for, but this would be a way of recognizing the four-part Seasons opus and her work in general. Of the middle-aged white cohort, she seems most likely.
I will happily accept some mixture of my wished-for and predicted titles, and would be surprised if any of the five books I have not mentioned is shortlisted. (Though quite a few others are predicting that Claire Fuller will advance; I’d have no problem with that.) I don’t think my book club would get a say in which of the six titles we’d be sent to read for the shadowing project, which is risky as I may have already read it and not want to reread, or it may be a surprise nominee that I don’t want to read, but I’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.
Callum, Eric, Laura and Rachel have been posting lots of reviews and thoughts related to the Women’s Prize. Have a look at their blogs!
Rachel also produced a priceless spreadsheet of all the Prize nominees by year, so you can tick off the ones you’ve read. I’m up to 150 now!
Born Digital by Robert Wigley (Blog Tour)
Robert Wigley spent a career in finance and is a father to three teenage sons. For two years, he learned more about their generation by meeting with 200 young entrepreneurs, one per business day. That combination of research and personal experience fuels his first book, Born Digital, which is about the unique challenges faced by Generation Z.
He found that, with young people spending an average of seven hours a day online, technology can exacerbate mental health issues, especially with the doom and gloom and lack of authenticity found on social media. Rather than making people feel more connected, technology tends to increase loneliness and reduce face-to-face interactions. Popularity and hook-ups are sought over meaningful, long-term relationships, while multi-tasking leads to an overall lack of focus.
This book brings up so many issues, including the potential for online surveillance and manipulation, and the problem of anonymity plus a failure to effectively verify users’ age. I’m still a smartphone refusenik because I want to carefully guard my time and attention, so I was particularly interested in the statistics and stories Wigley conveys about what it’s like for young people who have grown up with smartphones. This is a book I’ll be keeping on the shelf for future reference. It would of course be very relevant to parents and teachers, but I found it enlightening as well. Here’s a few-page excerpt to whet your appetite.
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE JUGGLER’S BRAIN
My youngest son is at home with my wife and me; my older two are in London. We are all glued to Chelsea (who they all avidly support) playing Manchester United in the semi-final of the FA Cup. Chelsea scores, and my son screams with excitement and then starts his hilarious victory dance in front of the TV. The family WhatsApp channel bursts into life. Ping, ping. My wife has sent a picture of my youngest in front of the TV. My eldest has replied saying ‘doing exactly the same’. Everyone is high on a cocktail of Chelsea scoring, WhatsApp pinging and the humorous pictures and messages that it conveys.
Pleasurable human experiences result in the release of dopamine in the brain. The dopamine attaching itself to receptors in the brain causes the feeling of pleasure we experience. Most pleasurable experiences cause the release of a small amount of dopamine. Broadly speaking, to start with, the more dopamine, the more pleasure.
Normally, this release of dopamine is a good thing. It encourages us to seek out what is healthy or beneficial in our environment. It’s so important, in fact, that neuroscientists have given it a central role in a type of fundamental human learning called reinforcement learning. I will explain how technology companies abuse reinforcement learning to modify human behaviour so that we maximise time on their platforms and apps. What scientists have found is that dopamine is related to the prediction of rewards. If a reward is received but not anticipated, an increase in dopamine is seen. And if a reward is anticipated and not seen, a decrease in dopamine is seen. Since our brains are wired to optimise rewards, this means that humans will be motivated to seek out new rewards in any given situation, do anything they know delivers a reward repeatedly and avoid anything which gives them negative effects. Technology companies design their platforms and apps to make them addictive using this science. Receiving a notification, a like on Facebook or Instagram, a match on Tinder or a win in Fortnite all trigger dopamine releases. Being blocked by a friend or killed in the game causes a decrease in dopamine.
The problem starts when you seek out dopamine regularly and repeatedly as most people could be tempted to, given the pleasurable effect. The brain starts to develop a tolerance for dopamine. So more dopamine is needed to generate the same degree of pleasure. In the natural world, the availability of rewards is largely out of humans’ hands. On technology platforms, it is designed in and can be made almost infinitely abundant. Addictions develop because two things happen. The brain produces less dopamine per stimulus, and the brain feels less stimulated by each new release. So more, larger stimuli are needed, requiring the addict to seek them.
Sean Parker, Facebook’s Founding President, said in 2017, ‘We need to give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while … exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology … the inventors, creators … understood it consciously. And we did it anyway. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.’
Mirror neurons fire in the brain when an animal acts and observes the same action in another. You smile, I smile back. This may explain why some people unwittingly imitate their companions, sitting similarly in terms of leg positions or with their heads cocked at a similar angle. Some neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons form the basis of emotions such as empathy. If true, to develop and display empathy requires the physical observation of a counterparty during the intercourse – something, of course, that social media chat doesn’t deliver.
While neuroscientists debate precise mechanisms, it seems reasonably well accepted that bonding situations – a mother feeding or hugging a child – result in the release of oxytocin, which itself triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin. This leads to pleasurable feelings of comfort and security and builds the bond between the baby and the parent or carer. We have seen that dopamine leads to pleasure, and serotonin boosts feelings of wellbeing and collegiality. Paul Zak, one of the original researchers into the effects of oxytocin, described this as Human Oxytocin Medicated Empathy (‘HOME’). Bonding and empathy require at least physical proximity or engaged face-to-face engagement to occur. This is one of the reasons why it is so important that babies are not distracted with iPads fixed inches in front of their faces in their recliners before they are two, and equally important that parents must not be distracted from fixing their baby’s gaze, eye to eye, by combining feeding or bonding time with use of their own devices.
Eye-to-eye contact seems to be critical not just as a baby, but throughout life. ‘Whether it’s affection, amusement, arrogance or annoyance, our eyes convey how we feel. And the ability to read another person’s eyes, face to face, is one of the best predictors of a person’s social intelligence,’ says King. Referring to the conclusions of Simon Baron-Cohen’s ‘reading the mind in the eye test’, she says. ‘The better you are at inferring someone else’s mental state by looking at their eyes, the more likely you are to be prosocial, perform well in groups and respond empathetically.’
My thanks to Midas PR for the proof copy. I was glad to take part in the blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared.
Short Stories in September, Part I
Each September I make a bit more of an effort to read short stories, which otherwise tend to sit on my shelves and Kindle unread. I’ve read three collections recently, all of them released this August or September, and I have a few more on the go to report on later in the month.
Likes by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
This was a hit and miss collection for me: I only loved one of the stories, and enjoyed another three; touches of magic realism à la Aimee Bender produce the two weakest stories, and there are a few that simply tail off without having made a point. My favorite was “Many a Little Makes,” about a trio of childhood best friends whose silly sleepover days come to an end as they develop separate interests and one girl sleeps with another one’s brother. In “Tell Me My Name,” set in a post-economic collapse California, an actress who was a gay icon back in New York City pitches a TV show to the narrator’s wife, who makes kids’ shows.
“Julia and Sunny,” about two couples – one that makes it and one that doesn’t – who all met in medical school, reminded me of a Wallace Stegner plot. “The Bears” has a wispy resemblance to Goldilocks and the Three Bears and stars a woman convalescing from a miscarriage at a retreat center while writing a chapter on William James. In James’s famous metaphor involving a bear, bodily action precedes emotion – we are afraid because we flee; not vice versa. The touch of magic in this story is light enough to not be off-putting, whereas “The Erlking” and “The Young Wife’s Tale” take their fairy tale similarities too far.
The title story, about a father trying to understand his 12-year-old through her Instagram posts either side of the Trump election, is promising but doesn’t go anywhere, and “The Burglar” and “Bedtime Story” struck me as equally insubstantial, making nothing of their setups. Seven of these nine stories had been previously published in other publications in some form.
Published in the USA by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I read an advanced e-copy via Edelweiss.
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons
Parsons’s debut collection, longlisted for the U.S. National Book Award in 2019, contains a dozen gritty stories set in or remembering her native Texas. Eleven of the 12 are in the first person, with the mostly female narrators unnamed or underdeveloped and thus difficult to differentiate from each other. The homogeneity of voice and recurring themes – drug use, dysfunctional families, overweight bodies, lesbian or lopsided relationships – lead to monotony.
“Glow Hunter” and “We Don’t Come Natural to It” are representative: in the former, Sarah and her girlfriend Bo have sex and go for a drive while tripping on magic mushrooms; in the latter, the narrator has a crush on her co-worker Suki, who has lost 200 pounds, and they remain obsessed with their and others’ fat bodies (the references are inescapable: “a pudgy,” “the fatty,” “some cow,” “thinspiration”). The opening story, “Guts,” is uncomfortable for the way that it both fetishizes fat and medicalizes sex: when unreliable, alcoholic receptionist Sheila turns up at her boyfriend Tim’s hospital saying there’s something wrong with her internally, he performs an examination that’s part striptease and part children playing doctor.
“The Light Will Pour In” is refreshingly different for its Lolita-type situation. “Into the Fold,” set at a girls’ boarding school, reminded me of Scarlett Thomas’s Oligarchy. In “Fiddlebacks,” my favorite, siblings on a night hunt for creepy-crawlies come across their newly religious mother and the handyman trysting in a car. “Starlite,” the only one in the third person, has colleagues, one a supervisor and both married, meet up in a seedy motel for drugs and junk food. The shortest stories at just a few pages each, “In Our Circle” and “The Animal Part” animate art therapy in a mental hospital and urban legends told while camping (though I’d forgotten it, I’d encountered the former in The Best Small Fictions 2017).
These stories engaged me at neither the sentence level nor the plot level, but many readers (and critics) have felt otherwise. Here are two lines I liked, from “Glow Hunter”: “Bo says everything that scares you is something to poke at with a stick, to pick up and turn in your hands” & “I’m very aware that we are organisms on the surface of a rock, orbiting a burning star.”
My thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South
“In the modern world, you might be easily forgotten, but you could also carve out your own niche.”
In the 10 stories of this debut collection, characters turn to technology to stake a claim on originality, compensate for their losses, and leave a legacy. In “Keith Prime,” a widowed nurse works at a warehouse that produces unconscious specimens for organ harvesting. When her favorite Keith wakes up, she agrees to raise him at home, but human development and emotional connection are inconveniences in a commodity. The narrator of “FAQs about Your Craniotomy” is a female brain surgeon who starts out by giving literal answers to potential patient questions and then segues into bitterly funny reflections on life after her husband’s suicide.
In “Architecture for Monsters,” a young woman interviews Helen Dannenforth, a formidable female architect whose designs are inspired by anatomy, specifically by her disabled daughter’s condition. The narrator’s mother, a molecular biologist, was assaulted and murdered by a lab technician. Dannenforth is a hero/replacement mother figure to her, even after she learns about the complicated situation with the architect’s sister, who was the surrogate for her niece but then got cut out of the child’s life.
I particularly liked “The Age of Love,” a funny one in which the nurses at a nursing home listen in to their elderly patients’ calls to phone sex lines. Their conversations aren’t about smut so much as they’re about loneliness and nostalgia. Another favorite of mine was “Camp Jabberwocky for Recovering Internet Trolls,” about a Martha’s Vineyard camp for teens who need a better relationship with social media. When camper Rex Hasselbach, who had posted foul content in his father’s name to get revenge on being beaten up at home, goes missing, three counselors with guilt or identity issues of their own go looking for him. The title story also engages with social media as a woman obsessively tracks her rapist and works as a “digital media curator” deleting distressing video content.
All of the characters have had a bereavement or other traumatic incident and are looking for the best way to move on, but some make bizarre and unhealthy decisions – such as to restage events from a dead daughter’s life, to breastfeed grown men, or to communicate by text with a deceased wife. These quirky, humorous stories never strayed so far into science fiction as to alienate me. I loved the medical themes and the subtle, incisive observations about a technology-obsessed culture. I’ll be looking out for what Mary South does next.
(Note: The cover image is a creepily pixelated version of the author’s photo.)
My thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?
Final 2019 Review Books: Brodesser-Akner, Cregan & McCulloch
The final three review books of the year (not counting DNFs, which will be briefly dispatched on Sunday): a much-hyped novel set in contemporary New York City, a memoir of suicidal depression and recuperation, and a study of linguistics in the Internet era.
Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
According to the aggregated best-of lists (which Kate has surveyed here), this was one of the top two novels of 2019. I’m going to have to shrug my shoulders and admit, I don’t get it. To me this didn’t stand out at all from the sea of fiction about crumbling marriages and upper-middle-class angst. Toby Fleishman is 41-year-old head of hepatology at a New York City hospital. He recently split from his wife, Rachel, agent to the creator of a Hamilton-style phenomenon. Not content with their comfortable lifestyle, Rachel hankers for true wealth.
When Rachel goes AWOL at a yoga retreat, Toby is left in charge of their children: Hannah, 11, and Solly, nine. He ferries them to and from summer camp, all the while bombarded with dirty texts and semi-nude selfies from the women he’s flirting with via a dating app. Had this novel been written by a man, people would have been up in arms about the unpleasant sexual content. But this is not just written by a woman; it’s also narrated by a woman: Elizabeth Epstein Slater, a former journalist turned stay-at-home mom. She and Toby became friends on their junior year abroad in Israel and have started hanging out more after his divorce.
So this is a book within a book Elizabeth is writing about one turbulent summer in her friends’ lives, but also her own – she’s dissatisfied with her staid marriage. It’s also Brodesser-Akner’s winking commentary on macho or moralizing fiction: “this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman—to tell her story through a man” and “none of my characters were likable,” Elizabeth thinks. But attempts to humanize Toby and Rachel fell flat for me. Sadness over the loss of one patient was insufficient to endear me to the randy Toby, and early life with a grim grandmother and severe postpartum trauma couldn’t make me care about whether Rachel was coming back. I also never fully suspended disbelief about Elizabeth’s intimate knowledge of the Fleishmans.
This very New York novel started out promising, with echoes of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? or The Nest. There are some perceptive passages about marriage, and the writing in general is more than capable. But the story didn’t feel nearly fresh enough to justify all that acclaim, or the 373-page length.
With thanks to Wildfire for the free copy for review.
The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery by Mary Cregan
Cregan has a scar that reminds her, every time she notices it, of how close she came to taking her own life decades ago. In 1983, at the age of 27, she gave birth to a baby girl, Anna, who died two days later of a heart defect. The loss plunged her into a depression so severe that she made a halfhearted suicide attempt some weeks later and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she was given electroconvulsive therapy. One morning in the hospital, she brought a glass jar of lotion into the shower with her, smashed it, and took a shard to her throat. She only narrowly missed her carotid artery. Cregan wonders if, had she been given appropriate medication, all this heartache could have been avoided.
“I’ve often wished I could undo my own act (if indeed ‘I’ and ‘my’ are accurate words for a self in the condition I was in.)”
“It took a long time to work all of this out, because it’s very hard to see yourself clearly when depressed. The problem is that you think with your mind, but your mind is ill and untrustworthy. Your mind is your enemy.”
Alongside her own winding story, the author surveys the history of mental health treatment in the United States. This felt more familiar and thus engaged me less than the personal material. Nevertheless, I would recommend this forthright memoir to anyone keen to read about the experience of mental illness.
With thanks to the author for arranging my free copy from Lilliput Press, Dublin.
Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch
I’m surprised by how fascinating I found this: I’m a late adopter when it comes to technology (I’m still resisting a smartphone) and I haven’t given linguistics a thought since that one class I took in college, but it turns out that my proofreader’s interest in the English language and my daily use of e-mail and social media were enough to make it extremely relevant. The Montreal linguist’s thesis is that the Internet popularized informal writing and quickly incorporates changes in slang and cultural references. At the same time, it still reflects regional and age-specific differences in the way that people speak (write conversationally).
The book goes deep into topics you may never have considered, like how we convey tone of voice through what we type and how emoji function as the gestures of the written word. You’ll get a breakdown of current generations in terms of when the Internet became the default in their life (I belong to what the author calls “Semi Internet People”: I remember first using the Internet in a classroom in seventh grade, getting dial-up AOL at home not long thereafter, and opening my own Hotmail account in high school), a history of lolcats, and musings on the metaphorical use of periods and capital letters. If you are among the unconvinced, you’ll also be schooled in the appeal of gifs and memes.
Some trivia I picked up:
- In 2015 the tears of joy emoji became the most popular emoji, more used than the smiley-face emoticon.
- For many of us the Internet serves as what sociologists call a “third place” besides home and work where we can socialize.
- Only 5–8% of Internet users are bloggers.
- “Subtweeting” (as in subliminal) and “vaguebooking” are when you post about a situation without giving any specifics.
- Parents often refer to a child by an initial or nickname so the child won’t have a searchable social media presence.
- The Library of Congress now archives memes (The Lolcat Bible, Urban Dictionary, etc.).
McCulloch portrays language as a constantly changing network, such that terms like “standard” and “correct” no longer apply. She writes with such geeky enthusiasm that you’ll happily accompany her down any linguistic alley.
With thanks to Harvill Secker for the free copy for review.
New Networks for Nature 2018
This past weekend was my fourth time attending part of Nature Matters, the annual New Networks for Nature conference. I’ve written about it here a couple of times, once when there was a particular focus on nature poetry and another time when it was held in Cambridge. This year it was back in Stamford for a last time for the 10th anniversary. Next year: York.
What’s so special about the conference is its interdisciplinary nature: visual artists, poets, musicians, writers, politicians, academics and conservationists alike attend and present. So although the event might seem geared more towards my biologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. The roster is a who’s who of British nature writing: Mark Avery, Tim Birkhead, Mark Cocker, Mary Colwell, Miriam Darlington, Richard Kerridge, Peter Marren, Michael McCarthy, Stephen Moss, Adam Nicolson, Katharine Norbury, Ruth Padel, Laurence Rose and Mike Toms were all there this year. I also appreciate the atmosphere of friendly disagreement about what nature is and how best to go about conserving it.
I attended on Friday, a jam-packed day of sessions that began with Bob Gibbons presenting on the flowers and wildlife of Transylvania, a landscape and culture that are still almost medieval in character. Then Jeremy Mynott interviewed Mark Cocker about his latest book, Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife before It Is Too Late? I’ve read other Cocker books, but not this one yet. Its main point seems to be that the country’s environmental organizations need to work together. Individuals and NGOs are doing passionate and wonderful things towards nature conservation, Cocker said, but overall “we ain’t getting there.” Bad news doesn’t sell, though, he noted: his book has sold just 6,000 copies compared to 30,000 for Wilding, Isabella Tree’s story of the rewilding success at Knepp.
Cocker refused to define nature in a one-sentence soundbite, but argued that we have to consider ourselves a part of it rather than thinking about it as a victim ‘out there’ (the closest he came to a definition was “the totality of the system we are a part of”). “Our responsibility, terrifyingly, is unending,” he said – every time you open a new plastic toothbrush, you can’t forget that the old one you throw away will effectively be around forever. Our Place isn’t just composed of polemic, though: it’s structured around six beloved landscapes and finds moments of transcendence in being out in nature. You find hope by walking out the door, feeling the wind on your face and hearing the starling singing, Cocker remarked. He closed by reading a description from the book of the north Norfolk coast.
Either side of lunch were panels on how social media (mostly Twitter, plus smartphone apps) can serve nature and the role that poetry might play in environmental activism, with a brief interlude from visual artist Derek Robertson, who responded to the refugee crisis by traveling to Calais and Jordan and painting human figures alongside migratory birds. In the poetry session I especially enjoyed hearing from Ben Smith, a University of Plymouth lecturer and poet with a debut novel coming out in April 2019 (Doggerland, from Fourth Estate). He recently collaborated with Dr. Lee de Mora on a set of poems inspired by the Earth System Model, which provides the data for the International Panel on Climate Change. Climate modeling might seem an odd subject for poetry, but it provides excellent metaphors for failure and hope in “Spinning Up,” “Data Sets” and “Alternate Histories.”
Birmingham lecturer Isabel Galleymore, whose debut collection Significant Other is coming out from Carcanet Press in March, talked about how she uses the tropes of love poetry (praise, intimacy, pursuit and loss) when writing about environmental crisis. This shift in her focus began at university when she studied Wordsworth through an ecocritical lens, she said. Jos Smith and Luke Thompson were the other two poets on a panel chaired by Matt Howard. Howard quoted Keats – “We hate poetry that has a design on us” – and asked the poets for reactions. Smith agreed that polemic and poetry don’t mix well, yet said it’s good to have a reason for writing. He thinks it’s best when you can hold two or more ideas in play at a time.
After tea and a marvelous cake spread, it was time for a marathon of three sessions in a row, starting with three short presentations on seabirds: one by a researcher, one by a nature reserve manager, and one by a young artist who produced Chinese-style scroll paintings of the guillemot breeding colonies on Skomer and exhibited them in Sheffield Cathedral.
Next up was a highlight of the weekend: Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Labour peer Baroness Barbara Young conversed with Michael McCarthy on the topic “Can Conventional Politics Save the Environment?” Both decried short-term thinking, the influence of corporations and the media, and government departments not working together. No one was ever elected on the promise of “less,” McCarthy suggested, but in reply Lucas talked about redefining terms: less of what? more of what? If we think in terms of quality of life, things like green energy and the sharing economy will become more appealing. She also believes that more people care about green issues than we think, but, e.g., a London mum might speak out about air quality without ever using the word “environment.” Baroness Young concluded that “adversarial politics, flip-flopping between parties, isn’t working” and we must get beyond it, at the local level if nothing else. That rang true for me for American politics, too.
Before the day ended with a drinks reception, we were treated to a completely different presentation by Lloyd Buck, who raises and trains birds, mostly for television footage. So, for instance, the greylag geese flying in formation alongside the boat in David Attenborough’s 2012 Sixty Years in the Wild TV special had imprinted on Lloyd’s wife, Rose. Buck spoke about bonding with birds of very different personalities, and introduced the audience to five starlings (who appeared in Poldark), a peregrine, a gyrfalcon, a golden eagle, and Bran the raven, who showed his intelligence by solving several puzzles to find hidden chunks of meat.
I purchased two books of poetry from the bookstall – I had no idea Darlington had written poetry before her nature books – and the conference brochure itself is a wonderful 75-page collection of recent artwork and short nature writing pieces, including most of the presenters but also Patrick Barkham, Tim Dee, Paul Evans, Philip Hoare, Richard Mabey, Helen Macdonald and Chris Packham – a keynote speaker announced for next year. I’ve been skipping through the booklet and have most enjoyed the pieces by Melissa Harrison and Helen Scales so far. Altogether, an inspiring and worthwhile weekend.
Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?
Seeking Advice about Instagram
I recently signed up to Instagram – bookishbeck, as always, if you want to connect – but haven’t been very active on the site yet. (My sister coerced me into joining, mostly so I could follow itsdougthepug.) The main issue is that I don’t have a smartphone, so rather than using the app version I have to go via a program called Gramblr and can’t access all the usual features. A lot of the time it can seem like too much of a faff to post pictures on there.
However, I want to give the site a proper go so would like to get advice on how I can best use it as a book blogger. I know it can be a good way to connect with publishers by posting photos of review copies they’ve sent you and linking to your reviews, etc. I’ve already followed a bunch of publishers, but I know there’s more I could and should be doing.
So I’ll turn it over to you: those of you who use Instagram (primarily for bookish reasons rather than personal photos, though that’s cool too), what accounts should I be following? What’s your strategy when posting book photos? How can I use hashtags and captions to my advantage? Do you use Instagram in pretty much the same way as you do Twitter, or are there subtle differences I should be aware of?
Thanks in advance for any tips!
Seeking Fellow Bloggers’ Advice
I’ve had this blog for almost a year now (tomorrow’s the anniversary!), and although I’m enjoying the writing practice and the interaction with readers, it hasn’t necessarily grown as much as I might have wanted it to. So I am seeking advice – from all my readers, but from fellow bloggers in particular.
From those of you who are experienced bloggers, especially book bloggers, I would love to know how you’ve made it work: what your strategies are for types and timing of posts; how you use social media to your advantage; how you connect with publishers and authors; and how you’ve carved out a niche for yourself.
I’d be glad to hear your thoughts about anything from the loooooong list of questions below – and if you’d rather reply at length and in private rather than via a comment, feel free to get in touch with me via e-mail: email@example.com.
- How often do you post per week?
- How long do you try to make your posts?
- Does a post’s timing (day of week and time of day) matter?
- How do you encourage blog comments?
- Do you try to reflect on book trends and controversies?
- How can I help create advanced buzz about books?
- When’s a good time to write about book prize races – before and/or after?
- How many book blogs do you follow and how do you keep up with them all?
I generally publish one straightforward review per week, usually on a Monday, and then my general strategy for other posts is to alternate between lists on a theme (with mini reviews), event or travel write-ups, and personal reflections or opinion pieces. I also do a monthly reviews roundup and often report on my library borrowing at the end of a month.
I try to make my post timings sensible for both US and UK readers, so I usually aim for 9 am ET / 2 pm GMT. I follow about 10 fellow book bloggers and already that feels like the limit of what I can sensibly keep up with, though I’d love to be supportive of others in return. I’d like to think it’s not always a tit for tat scenario, but I also accept that I’m more likely to get follows, likes and comments if I’m returning the favor.
- How can I attract more followers (blog and/or Twitter)?
- How often should I check Twitter and post on it?
- Where do you draw the line in terms of who you follow on Twitter?
- How can I best use Twitter to my advantage?
- Do you always tag a book’s author and/or publisher when you tweet a review?
- Is it worth making a Facebook author page?
- Are there any other groups (Facebook or other) I should be part of?
- Are there blog networks or directories I could join?
- Can you think of any blogger perks websites I should sign up for apart from NetGalley, Edelweiss and Blogging for Books?
I think I follow about 300 Twitter accounts. I go on there every few days and find it completely overwhelming; I can be scrolling for 20 minutes and not even get through a few hours of posts, let alone a few days’ worth. I follow a lot of publishers, so use the site mostly to keep an eye out for new books and enter giveaways, plus I link to my blogs and bylined reviews. However, I don’t know whether I should be following all the authors, publicists, fellow reviewers, bloggers, and freelance writers I can. It just seems to snowball!
I also cross-post my reviews to Goodreads and sometimes to Facebook, either on my own page or in a UK Book Bloggers group.
Publishers and Authors
- Do you request books, or are they sent to you unsolicited?
- How do you keep track of what’s coming out and decide what to ask for?
- How far ahead would you request a title?
- Are certain publishers particularly helpful and accommodating?
- How can I know definitively whether an American title is also coming out in the UK, maybe at a later date?
- Are your requests always granted?
- How many times do you follow up with a publicist before giving up?
- How can I help support debut novelists?
- How can I get involved in blog tours and giveaways?
- How could I bag invites to literary events in London?
- Is it possible to get involved in judging a literary prize?
Maybe my expectations are unrealistic, but I’m sure I’ve heard other bloggers talk about receiving boxes full of review books, unasked, months in advance of the publication dates. Some people seem to be doing blog tours and interviews every few days. I’ve gotten a bit braver about sending e-mails to publishers asking for a book I fancy reviewing on my blog, but I don’t feel like I quite have the etiquette down yet.
My long-term aim is to be a judge for a major book prize, like the Bailey’s Prize or the Man Booker Prize. (Hey, a girl can dream! I certainly read enough in a year to keep up with the load.) I also like the sound of getting dressed up for a book release soirée or similar.
Finding a Niche
- Would you rather see more straightforward reviews on my blog, or fewer?
- Is it important for me to specialize in terms of what genres I review?
- Is it advisable to list my e-mail address on the blog?
Tomorrow I’ll unveil an updated blog design to mark the one-year anniversary. I’m also tailoring my “About” page.
I’m grateful for any and all pieces of advice. I may have been doing this for a year now, but I still feel like an utter newbie! Here’s to another year of reading and writing.